Apr 29, 2009

The Ghost of Elections Past (revised)


From our STV series in the new BC Commentary, UVic historian Ben Isitt looks to the past when he sees STV.

UPDATE (April 30): It seems that there is some confusion about the term Single Transferable Vote and its applicability to the 1952 and 1953 elections. Dennis Pilon, also from U Vic wrote to say that what was being called STV in the 1950s was a system designed to produce a majority government not a proportional outcome, even though some of the design features are similar. This issue came up when Ben ran the original piece in the Times Colonist, so he has revised the text as follows. I have also appended some of Dennis’ comments about the differences after Ben’s piece for those interested in the subtleties of voting systems.

The Ghost of Elections Past: The Transferable Vote in the 1952 and 1953 BC elections

By Ben Isitt

As the May referendum on electoral reform approaches, we should not ignore our history. Rarely mentioned in the current discussion is British Columbia’s previous experience with the Transferable Vote.

In the 1952 and 1953 general elections, voters ranked candidates according to an adapted “transferable vote” or alternative vote system. The ruling Liberal government of the day – BC’s last until 2001 – had amended the Provincial Elections Act to keep the opposition Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (precursor to the NDP) out of office. In the words of contemporary observer and future Liberal leader Patrick McGeer, it provided W.A.C. Bennett’s “ladder to power,” inaugurating the Social Credit dynasty that contained the CCF threat.

The 1950s was a period of social and political flux. The Liberals and Conservatives had formed a Coalition government a decade earlier, after the CCF won the most votes in a general election. This succeeded in keeping the socialists at bay, preventing a wartime victory like the one in Saskatchewan, where Tommy Douglas’s CCF took power. On the heals of the Douglas government’s innovative social policies, the BC Coalition enfranchised Asian and Aboriginal voters and implemented the Hospital Insurance Act before the 1949 election. But this new social program’s precarious financial structure produced spiraling cost-overruns and the Coalition’s collapse in 1951.

The final act of co-operation between the Liberals and Conservatives was passage of the Provincial Elections Act Amendment Act, introducing the transferable vote in the spring 1951 legislative session. Both parties had endorsed the voting system at conventions in the 1940s.

The new system required voters to rank candidates by preference (first, second, third, fourth choice). Candidates receiving the fewest votes were eliminated and preferences transferred until one candidate received a majority of ballots cast. Distinguishing itself from the modern BC-STV model, the system in the 1950s employed different counting procedures in both single-member and multiple-member constituencies, such as those in Vancouver, Burnaby, and Victoria.

The Liberals expected to receive second preferences of Conservative voters, while Conservatives expected to be ranked second by Liberal voters. One or the other party was anticipated to retain power and keep the CCF out. But William Andrew Cecil Bennett, the eclectic Kelowna hardware merchant and erstwhile Conservative who had left the Coalition in its dying days, stymied their plans.

Bennett aligned himself with the ruling Social Credit party in Alberta (in office since 1935) and another dissident Tory, Tilly Rolston of Point Grey. He toured the province by car and invested $10,000 of his own funds propping up the skeletal campaigns of 45 Social Credit candidates – none of whom had served in the legislature. They were accountants, school teachers, musicians, and small-town businesspeople, political “outsiders” like himself who resented the political clique ensconced in the Vancouver Club and Victoria’s Union Club.

On election day, 12 June 1952, British Columbians went to the polls. The results were unclear for a month, as ballots were counted by hand through the new voting system. Initially, the CCF received the most first-preference votes (which would have translated into 21 seats in BC’s 48 seat legislature under the old voting system, a strong claim for a minority CCF government). But as the second, third and fourth preferences were redistributed, Social Credit emerged as the victor, the second choice of supporters of the established parties.

Social Credit – untested and untainted in the legislature – edged out the CCF, 19 seats to 18. The Liberals and Conservatives fell to six and four seats respectively. W.A.C. Bennett became premier with a minority Social Credit government. The next spring, he engineered his defeat in the legislature, won a majority mandate in a snap election, and promptly repealed the Provincial Elections Act changes. British Columbia returned to the old first-past-the-post voting system that prevails to this day.

Except for a brief NDP interlude in the 1970s, Social Credit ruled BC until 1991 as the new form of Coalition, benefiting initially from the transferable voting system and later by campaign donations from major resource companies. Mired in scandal, this Coalition fractured for a time, translating into a decade of NDP rule, but the Liberals returned after 49 years in opposition, as the dominant free-enterprise Coalition in 2001.

The new premier, Gordon Campbell, appointed the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform to explore changes to the voting system. The assembly, aided by staff appointed by the government, recommended a “BC-STV” model, which received support from fifty-eight percent of voters in 2005 and will be decided again in May’s referendum.

Dr. Benjamin Isitt is Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Fellow of History at the University of Victoria.

Comment from Dennis Pilon:

When this piece originally ran in the Times Colonist myself and others wrote in to clarify that the 1952/3 system was actually the alternative vote, not STV. It is a common mistake, indeed it was one committed often at the time the system was used in BC then, but it is and was nonetheless wrong. BC did not use STV in 1952 and 1953. What gets confusing is that the ‘1,2,3’ preference voting aspect can be combined into two very different voting systems, one a majority voting system, and the other a proportional one.

BC used what Australia calls the “alternative vote” where the point was to assure that elected members had a majority of the votes in a riding. The STV system was used in 19 municipalities in western Canada at various times and for urban ridings to the provincial houses in Alberta and Manitoba from the 1920s to the 1950s. The confusion over the terminology in 1952 so incensed Enid Lakeman, director of the British Electoral Reform Society, that she wrote to various Vancouver papers at the time correcting on their misuse of the term STV.

In the study of voting systems there are three broad families: plurality systems, majority systems, and proportional systems. These voting systems are comprised of three distinct parts: a formula, a districting rule, and a ballot structure. Formula choices include plurality, majority, and proportional (thus the family names), the districting choices include single or multi-member, and the ballot structure varies from nominal (x-voting) and ordinal (1,2,3 etc). Thus if we examine AV (BC’s 1952 voting system) and STV (the one we are voting on May 12), they typically share only one feature: the ballot structure – voting by preference using 1, 2, 3 etc. I say typically because 1952 saw BC use multi-member AV ridings as well, though voters were randomly given ballots in those ridings with pre-structured choices of candidates to choose from (e.g. in a two member riding, the two CCF, Liberal, SC, etc. candidates would be split between the two ballots). Arguably the crucial difference between the two systems, and thus why the family names take on this
particular characteristic, is formula used to count the votes. In AV it is a majority formula while in STV it is a proportional formula.